Speak sustainably: being old in the age of global warming

I have a new friend. Her name is Susan and she lives in Reno, Nevada. We only met in person once when we happened to be in Tuscon, Arizona at the same time last spring. We are both elderly, both social workers with long careers and both heartbroken.

“I didn’t think retirement would look like this, did you?” she asks during a recent Zoom call. “I was thinking of reading, traveling, visiting friends. Instead, we are faced with the uncertain future of all life, a reality that no other generation has had to face. What we do over the next 10 years will determine whether or not thousands of species, including our own, will survive. She stops talking and looks at the floor. I nod. We are silent, our grief is too great for words. The dog scratches at the door.

Together we try to accommodate the idea that in our lifetime the exquisite balance of carbon in the atmosphere that produced the miracle that is life on this Earth has been tragically altered. Oh, how I once celebrated our success and progress after World War II; how I savored all those pretty shoes, those red velvet sofas and those new cars!

But the bill has come due, and life as we know it on the planet is close to death.

And so, in this case, we are Susan and I, two old women still in love with life.

Scientists tell us that we have 10 years – and only 10 – to drastically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. After that, the window to a habitable planet closes. My ability to imagine the suffering and chaos that could result is limited. I want to turn away from the images, the feelings of hopelessness, fear and grief – and guilt too.

Instead, I met Susan through Third Act, a new national organization for seniors. Divesting from the big banks that invest heavily in fossil fuels – Citi, Wells Fargo, Chase and Bank of America – is one of the main thrusts of the organization. Third Act founder, longtime environmental writer Bill McKibben, argues that seniors have both the time and the resources to devote to this type of action. Moreover, seniors who are concerned about their heritage are highly motivated to do so.

Is McKibben right? Are we seniors motivated to take action? Or are we so stunned to find ourselves here, at the end of our lives and the possible end of life on the planet, that we can hardly talk about what all of this means to us? Has this threat evolved so quickly and on such an overwhelming scale that we need help knowing how to deal with these deadly truths?

For me, the answer to all of the above questions is yes, and that’s why my conversation with Susan is so important. I am stunned, and yes, I need help to process this totally new reality we are facing.

But if these are the most important years for the healing of the planet, then what more crucial and exciting time is there to be alive, to be fierce, to be brave, to be a true elder?

Kathleen Sullivan is a longtime Freeport resident, psychotherapist, writer and coordinator of FreeportCAN.org. She blogs on Substack: “Code Red and Me, Rethinking Everything” and is working on creating a Third Act Maine chapter (thirdact.org).

” Previous

Teresa H. Sadler